Sunday, July 1, 2007

It has been nearly three and a half years since the Washington Capitals gutted their roster by trading Jaromir Jagr and, eventually, several of his high-priced teammates.

If this team is to make the playoffs for the first time since Jagr wore a Caps sweater for a full season (2002-03), the coming days could prove vital. Unrestricted free agents can sign contracts starting at noon today, and the first day typically is a frenzied one across the league.

While general manager George McPhee wouldn’t discuss specifics, the Caps offseason shopping list via either free agency or trade likely will include a center to play with Alex Ovechkin and mentor Nicklas Backstrom, a right wing to play on one of the top two lines and two veteran defensemen.

“We have a strategy and we’ll see what develops,” McPhee said. “If you’re talking about filling certain positions, it doesn’t say much about the guys you have. … We’ve identified some guys and put a price on them.”

The salary cap for next season will rise to $50.3 million, a $6.3 million increase from last year and more than $11 million higher than after the lockout. That means the salary floor is set at $34.3 million. Last year the Caps had the lowest payroll in the league and ended up spending about $30 million by season’s end — about $6 million less than the next closest franchises (Pittsburgh and St. Louis).

McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis have said on several occasions that the team would be more willing to spend this offseason.

“I wouldn’t expect [our payroll] to be the lowest,” McPhee said. “Ted has been clear enough that if the team is improving and if there are opportunities to improve the club then we can take those.”

There are several elite centers available, including Buffalo’s Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and New Jersey’s Scott Gomez. There will be plenty of teams lining up for their services, and the cost is rumored to be upwards of what Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk signed for in April (a seven-year contract worth $6.7 million a year).

While teams are not permitted to have discussions with players until their contracts expire today, one player teams can talk to is Alexei Yashin. Because the Islanders bought out the final four years of a 10-year, $87.5 million deal, Yashin’s agent, Mark Gandler, has been busy trying to find the center a home.

One of the teams Gandler, who also represents Alexander Semin, has talked to is Washington.

“I think it would be natural for them to be interested because of their need at center,” Gandler said. “It seems to me that the Capitals will look around and maybe after a couple days [something will happen]. Anything is possible, but in my opinion it is a perfect fit.”

Yashin, who will be 34 in November, had 50 points in 58 games last season, missing 24 games with a knee injury. After scoring 94 and 88 points in back-to-back seasons for Ottawa, he was traded to the Islanders in 2001 but has not tallied more than 75 points for New York.

He has played with both Semin and Ovechkin on Russian national teams.

“Semin called me and tried to get me to push Alexei toward the Capitals,” Gandler said.

Other centers who could be on the Caps wish list are Ottawa’s Mike Comrie; one of the players jettisoned in the 2004 fire sale (Michael Nylander); and the Islanders’ Viktor Kozlov, who was linemates with Ovechkin at the 2006 Olympics.

One player who could fill either of the team’s needs at forward is Dainius Zubrus, whom the Caps traded at the deadline in late February. Zubrus had 52 points in 60 games for Washington before compiling eight points in 19 games in a right wing role with Buffalo.

“He prefers center,” Zubrus’ agent, Jerrold Colton, said. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the team, but he prefers to play center.

“Dainius is very open-minded. It was very hard for him to leave and under the right circumstances he would be willing to come back.”

Colton and McPhee tried to work out a contract extension for Zubrus before the deadline. McPhee said he made offers of three and four years, but the two sides could not come to an agreement. Zubrus often was lauded by members of the organization for his mentorship of Ovechkin and Semin. His brother, Audrius, still works for the team.

“They don’t have to sell Dainius on Washington,” Colton said. “He was there for six years. We tried to get something done at the deadline and we just couldn’t get it done. He has a fondness for the organization — from George [McPhee] to [coach] Glen [Hanlon] to the players and the fans. It wasn’t like Dainius wanted to get out of Washington.”

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